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A Closer Look at One of Most Dangerous Coal Mines in the Country

With so much focus on West Virginia’s coal mines following April’s deadly blast at the Upper Big Branch, The Washington Post today has a good reminder that the safety concerns surrounding the industry transcend state boundaries.

In a front-page feature, reporter Kimberly Kindy takes a close look at the Tiller No. 1 Mine, a Massey-owned operation in Tazewell County, Va., that federal regulators consider one of the most unsafe mines in the country. Indeed, they’re trying to put the mine under a “pattern of violations” status — a rarely used tool that would allow inspectors to close the entire mine until it was deemed safe for the workers inside.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration says the injury rate at Tiller is 40 percent higher than at Upper Big Branch and twice the national average. Even as MSHA inspectors prepare to reenter Upper Big Branch on Wednesday for the first inspection since the fatal accident, the agency has focused much of its energy in recent weeks on the infractions at Tiller. MSHA officials say they have spent more than 1,000 hours building a case that Tiller deserves to be the first mine in the country to face the toughest enforcement tool available to regulators.

The mine’s owners and operators have devoted equal effort to fighting off the sanctions.

And it’s not just Massey fighting the sanctions. It’s the workers as well. That’s counterintuitive on the surface, considering that it’s the miners who are putting their lives at risk by going underground everyday. But in Appalachia’s coal country — among the most destitute nooks of the U.S. — the miners’ fears of losing their jobs often trump their fears of working in unsafe conditions. (This is largely due to the fact that, aside from flipping burgers, there aren’t many other employment options in coal country — a condition that the industry has fostered for decades in order to have greater leverage over its workforce.)

One Tiller miner, Randy Lester, told Kindy that the safety inspectors are “nitpicky.”

He fears that government regulation of the mine ultimately would shut it down — taking his job with it.

And it’s not just permanent closures that the miners fear. In non-union mines, even a temporary shutdown means that the workers don’t get paid until the hazards are cleared — not exactly a system that would encourage a miner to complain about the safety conditions in his or her mine.

The district where the Tiller No. 1 is located is represented by Rep. Rick Boucher, a 14-term Democrat who’s taken more money from the coal industry than all but four of his Capitol Hill colleagues, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Since April 5, when the Upper Big Branch mine exploded, Boucher — like a number of other coal-country lawmakers — has remained silent on the question of whether Congress should intervene to tighten the nation’s mine-safety laws. In the wake of the Post story, we’ve posed that question again. Updates as they arrive.

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